Let’s hear it for the Patriots

I’ve been watching the NCAA basketball tournament since the early 1960s, but have become less of a fan over the years. In order to maximize revenue and interest among casual fans, the NCAA has gone to a bloated 64 team format. Thus, every year the field consists of dozens of teams (fifth place teams in big conferences, third place teams in “mid-majors”) that have spent the year proving they do not deserve to compete for the national championship.

By virtue of the laws of probability, the current format produces enough buzzer-beaters and upsets to perpetuate and even increase the hype. However, the inevitable upsets often decimate the tournament’s brackets, enabling some of the high-seeded teams to advance deep into the tournament without having faced another high-seeded team, while less lucky contenders must go through a meat-grinder schedule.

The main beneficiary of good fortune this year seemed to the University of Connecticut. Nearly everyone’s favorite to win it all, Connecticut barely showed up against lowly Albany State in the first round. In the round of 16, they needed help from the refs to squeak past the University of Washington, a fifth seed. The only remaining obstacle to a trip to the final four was an eleven seed, George Mason University. The Patriots had upset Michigan State and North Carolina, but themselves were the beneficiary of the “madness” when they got to play another Cinderella team, Wichita State, in the round of 16.

George Mason is located in Fairfax, Virginia. It’s a state university and for years was a commuter school. The undergraduate program has been steadily improving, and the law school (some of whose professors contribute to the Volokh Conspiracy) has been improving dramatically.

Until this year, the progress of the basketball team under Coach Jim Larranaga has been steady, rather than dramatic. In 2001, George Mason came within a fumbled pass (if memory serves) of upsetting Maryland in the first round of the NCAA. Maryland did not face nearly as stiff a test until it reached the final four. However, this was the high-water mark for the George Mason program until this month.

The current team consists mainly of high school stars from the Washington-Baltimore area who, for various reasons, were not recruited by the power teams. It has three key ingredients for tournament success — upper classmen, inside-outside balance, and a willingness to play defense. This combination proved a little too much for a U.Conn. team that for some reason (perhaps arrogance) was unable play sustained quality basketball at any stage of the tourney.

A final aside — in the slimmed down version of the tournament I’d like to see, George Mason still would have had its shot. By virtue of finishing the season tied for first in the Colonial Athletic conference, they would have played off against the co-champions for the right to enter the tournament, and to play against the champion of another “mid-major” conference. Had they won both games, they would have been deep into the tournament with the opportunity to upset Connecticut or whomever.

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